Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox Studio Classics DVD
Gentleman’s Agreement may have been an important film at one time, but it was never a good film. Made during a fallow period in Hollywood when the war had exhausted the resources of the film studios and had exhausted the audience as well, when great storytellers like William Wyler and John Ford were taking a break after having just made some of the best pictures of their careers, and when such desperately hopeful films like Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife and condescendingly sanctimonious films like Crossfire were competing with this film and each other for awards, the film won the Best Picture Oscar for 1947.
The film tells the story of magazine writer Schuyler “Phil” Green (Gregory Peck), a widower who lives with his mother and young son in New York, who is assigned the task of writing an expose of anti-Semitism. As he searches for a new angle on the topic, he decides to pass as a Jew for several months, which causes no end of trouble for Green’s ailing mother, son, and girlfriend with a summer house in a restricted community (Dorothy McGuire). As a Jew (which is only ever made evident to people by Green stating, “because I’m JEWISH,” or asking people, “that wouldn’t make a difference because I’m JEWISH, would it?”), Green suffers cold shoulders from hotel clerks, doctors, and his girlfriend’s own family. Finally, Green’s old buddy, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), who is a Real Live Jew, arrives to show Green what anti-Semitism really is. Goldman has been offered a great job in New York, but may not be able to take it because he keeps being turned down for apartments. Eventually, everything works out for everyone. People learn Life Lessons, have Changes of Heart, and really learn what America is All About. Of course, the problem of anti-Semitism still exists and all that anyone in the film has done about it is write an article and find one guy a place to live. One shouldn’t fault the film too much for this, however, since Green’s stated goal was not to change the world with his article but to show people who didn’t think they hated Jews that maybe they did, just a little.
The film was directed by Elia Kazan, who would later go on to rat on his friends and colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee and then make another acclaimed film as an apologia and justification for his actions. Kazan did make a couple of really good movies, but Gentleman’s Agreement is not one of them. As a leading man, Gregory Peck is competent, but as always, a little too earnest. I have to admit not liking Peck at all until I saw him in Duel in the Sun, but this film makes me want to reconsider once again. On the other hand, nearly all of the supporting performances are excellent. Celeste Holm won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Green’s colleague at the magazine, and rightfully so. John Garfield is also excellent, and really grounds the film when he arrives on screen. Dorothy McGuire is much better in other films (see Friendly Persuasion), but she’s a good enough foil for Peck here.
Overall, this film is interesting as a historical curiosity and as a minor entry in the catalog of socially conscious films, but holds little appeal for most.